After Teen's Death, a Border Intifadeh?

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Mexican federal police and forensic experts stand next to the body of 14 year-old Sergio Adrian Hernandez Huereca, under the Paso Del Norte border bridge, as US officials watch from the US side at right, in Ciudad Juarez, northern Mexico, Monday, June 7, 2010. Sergio Adrian was the second killing of a Mexican National by U.S. officials in the last two weeks.

The killing of a 15-year-old Mexican boy by a U.S. Border Patrol agent on June 7, in the corridor between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, has conjured an eerie as well as tragic image on both sides of the Rio Grande. The incident involved Mexican youths throwing rocks at U.S. border cops who were arresting migrants crossing illegally into Texas. But local leaders like El Paso City Councilman Beto O'Rourke fear it reflects — and could further stoke — larger, festering border tensions. "The rocks versus guns picture is not one we want here," says O'Rourke. "It looks too much like Israel and Palestine for comfort."

O'Rourke is hardly the only border resident making that comparison this week. In the wake of Arizona's angry crackdown on illegal immigrants — and as President Obama plans to send 1,200 federal troops to beef up security along America's porous, 2,000-mile-long the southern frontier — border watchers fear the increasingly confrontational climate is encouraging U.S. border authorities to respond with heavier force. "I worry that officers may feel emboldened now to see themselves not just as law enforcement but as soldiers on a battlefield, defending the country against an invading enemy of Mexicans," says University of Texas-El Paso political science professor Tony Payan. Said Mexico's Foreign Ministry: "The growing frequency of this kind of event reflects a troubling trend in the use of excessive force by some border agents."

Monday's death of teenager Sergio Hernández, which U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday called "extremely regrettable," was indeed the second killing of a Mexican national by U.S. officials on the border in two weeks. On May 31 a Mexican illegal immigrant detained near San Diego, Calif., died allegedly after being beaten with a baton and shot with a taser gun when officials said he became combative. Both deaths are under investigation. (A cell-phone video of the Hernández shooting shows him and his companions running from U.S. Border Patrol agents and the boy later lying in a pool of blood; but it doesn't show how he was killed or if he was throwing rocks.) But Mexico, where President Felipe Calderon has expressed outrage over anti-immigration measures like Arizona's, claims that while five Mexicans were killed or wounded by U.S. border authorities in 2008, the number jumped to 12 last year and has already hit 17 in less than six months this year.

That complaint, of course, is vastly hypocritical given Mexican officials' far darker reputation for killing or abusing the hapless Central American immigrants they detain on Mexico's southern border. And U.S. officials argue that American border agents are also facing more assaults than ever, especially from the Mexican coyotes who smuggle migrants as well as drugs, but also from frustrated migrants themselves. In fiscal 2010, which began last October, border patrol agents in the El Paso sector say they've come under some 30 dangerous rock-throwing attacks, the most ever in an eight-month period. In March, an Arizona border rancher was shot and killed; and because local officials said the murderer may have been a Mexican coyote or illegal immigrant, it sparked the state’s draconian new anti-immigration law, which critics say blesses the racial profiling of Mexicans and other Hispanics and has spawned copycat bills as far away as Rhode Island.

Almost 800 assaults against American border agents involving rocks or other weapons have already been recorded along the entire border in fiscal 2010, says U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which includes the border patrol. That's a more than 20% increase over the same period in fiscal 2009. "Working with Mexico, we've made the border a tougher, tighter place for these criminal organizations, and they're lashing out," says CBP spokesman Lloyd Easterling, "Compared to the number of assaults they're facing, the amount of restraint our agents are showing is astounding." (On Thursday, the U.S. Justice department announced that American law enforcement, in a 22-month long investigation into Mexican drug gang activity on the border, arrested about 2,200 people.)

Still, the May 31 and June 7 incidents raise questions about whether that restraint is loosening as "the country's toxic anti-immigrant gases keep growing in the air," says Payan. CBP insists its agents have the right to "use appropriate force" if they feel their lives are threatened. But allegedly shooting a teen in the head as he ran back to the Mexico side of the border after throwing rocks "appears to have been a grossly disproportionate response," says global rights watchdog Amnesty International.

The tragedy also helps paint a disproportionately violent picture of the U.S. side of the border. The Mexican side, especially murder-ravaged Juarez, may be buckling under ever-bloodier drug-cartel warfare. But despite the Arizona border rancher's death, the U.S. side is actually one of the safest corridors in America, especially El Paso. "Militarizing the border the way Obama wants to will only serve to freak people out for reasons that aren't grounded in fact," says O'Rourke, a fourth-generation El Pasoan who fears that hysteria like Arizona's could ruin the border's important bilateral social and economic fabric.

All of which makes it more urgent than ever that Washington take up its immigration reform obligations as soon as possible. The Hernandez shooting "simply reflects what a terribly broken border management system we have," says Payan, "and if the Obama Administration doesn't work to throw cold water on these passions, this kind of violence could escalate." The Israel-Palestine analogy, Payan adds, is apt. "There is no other border in the world except that one where you have the economically desperate squaring off against the economically powerful, with rocks against bullets." Both Mexico and the U.S. need to work harder to make sure that doesn't become a common sight on their own border.